Leafs Can’t Let Up

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Feb. 28) – Without question, the Maple Leafs were not ready to face the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night. And, that’s odd, given Montreal’s lofty position in the standings; the fact Canadiens are a Division and Conference opponent; that Leafs thoroughly humiliated the Habs 18 nights earlier at Bell Centre… and, quite simply, that Toronto and Montreal remains among the oldest and fiercest competition in the National Hockey League.

Though one game is a meager sample-size, it is astonishing, nonetheless, when teams so intrinsically woven through decades of encounter fail to perform with energy. Canadiens didn’t belong on the same ice as the Leafs during the 6-0 Toronto pounding on Feb. 9 and it was men against boys in Montreal’s favor on Wednesday. You’d think the Leafs would automatically recognize a) they don’t normally function as efficiently on home ice; b) Montreal has been among the top three surprise clubs of the abbreviated NHL schedule, and c) the Habs would be gunning for revenge after getting embarrassed in front of their home audience.

It should require limited motivation for hardened rivals to be enthusiastic about one another. You rarely see a colorless game between the Celtics and Lakers; Yankees and Red Sox; Packers and Bears – regardless of standing. As such, consecutive duds involving Toronto and Montreal is a disappointment.

DION PHANEUF SCUFFLES WITH BRANDON PRUST OF MONTREAL DURING CANADIENS 5-2 THUMPING OF LEAFS WEDNESDAY NIGHT. TORONTO NEEDS A BIGGER EFFORT FROM ITS CAPTAIN IN SECOND HALF OF THE SEASON. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

On Wednesday night, the Leafs failed to show for only the second time this season – a dispiriting home loss to Carolina on Valentine’s Day being the other. Islanders throttled the Leafs, 7-4, at Air Canada Centre on Jan. 24 and Leafs fell apart in the third period at Madison Square Garden two nights later. But, they were skating each night. On Wednesday, they all but capitulated from the outset and got what they deserved in the final frame.

Yes, the boarding call on Mike Brown should have been a minor rather than a major and game misconduct, and the botched face-off that led to the winning Habs’ goal should have been whistled down. But, as they say, you make your own breaks in sport, and the Leafs earned none on Wednesday.

IT’S RATHER INCREDIBLE that Leafs have gone past regulation time only once in their first 21 games – winning at Buffalo on Matt Frattin’s overtime goal, Jan. 29. Looking quickly through the record book, it appears Leafs have advanced as far with a lone regulation draw only once – 1990-91 – when the club was 8-25-1 after 34 games (4-16-1 at this point in the schedule). That was the season Leafs started 1-10-1 under Doug Carpenter, who was quickly replaced behind the bench by Tom Watt.

LEAFS WOULD BE WISE to tread carefully with James Reimer. The club’s No. 1 goalie did not participate in an optional morning skate today at Nassau Coliseum but is expected to start against the Islanders tonight. With a rare weekend off, I would stick with Ben Scrivens in this game and give Reimer three extra days to recover from his MCL strain – an injury that can be aggravated without much exertion. We’ll see what happens.

IF LEAFS ARE TO CONTINUE their current pace and end their franchise-record playoff drought, they’ll need more from Dion Phaneuf. The team-captain shows up each night and plays a generally physical game. I like him and don’t feel he’s deserving of the scorn that has marked his time here. But, Dion is making too many mistakes in the defensive zone and his shot is still missing the net far too often. When his one-timer – in particular – hits the mark, it is among the deadliest in the league. When he shoots wide, velocity means nothing. As such, his numbers are mediocre: three goals and nine points in 21 games. Cody Franson is three points ahead of him, for crying out loud. Dion must take his game to another level in the second half. He has the capability to do so. Leafs need him, big-time.

INTERESTING OBSERVATION: Anaheim Ducks are the second-best team in the NHL to this point, trailing only the unconscious Chicago Blackhawks with 14 wins and 29 points. But, the club isn’t drawing particularly well – only 13,630 showed up at Honda Centre for the Ducks’ 5-1 victory over Nashville on Wednesday.

My brother-in-law, Andrew, is in from southern California for a family event this weekend. Andrew; his wife and two kids live in Mission Viejo, 38 kilometers southeast of Anaheim. By SoCal standards, he’s a fairly decent hockey fan. On Wednesday night, my son, Shane, asked Andrew if the red-hot Ducks are making any noise in the local sports scene.

Andrew’s reply: “Not a lot. They don’t receive much attention until the playoffs – and even then, only if they get beyond the first or second round. It doesn’t matter much what their record is during the season.”    

AGELESS TEEMU SELANNE LET’S GO OF SHOT DURING ANAHEIM’S 5-1 VICTORY OVER NASHVILLE WEDNESDAY NIGHT AT HONDA CENTRE. DESPITE NHL’s SECOND-BEST RECORD, DUCKS AREN’T MAKING A LOT OF NOISE IN THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA SPORTS SCENE. DEBORA ROBINSON GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

WINTER WONDERLAND: Frosty the Snowman left us alone here in southern Ontario until January, and hasn’t shown a lot of mercy since.

The scene early today..

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